Reflecting on their experience playing with Cats & Dogs, the new Sims 4 expansion pack, Nicole Carpenter describes the anxieties arising from new pets of the digital and physical variety. When their new pet cat catches ‘lava nose’ in the game, it recalled memories of waiting at the vet after Carpenter’s own kitten (on which their Sim cat is based) swallowed a long piece of yarn. And not just memories, but new, visceral worries for their digital cat’s wellbeing. “That anxiety stems from wanting control,” Carpenter says, “something that you rarely have in real life and that the Sims allows you in small doses before taking it away for dramatic effect.”
The anxieties our pets inspire in us — “You’re in charge of a life now, and that’s scary” — seems primarily an effect of vicariousness. It’s one thing to console a friend or newborn or a stranger through a crisis, where each demands unique empathetic approaches. Strategies for consoling a pet are similarly individuated, but more ambiguous. Our furry friends’ exceedingly wide yet minute subtleties in conveying their discomfort, combined with the relatively more limited forms of medical and emotional care we have to console them, heightens our vicarious pain, compelling us to exhaust every possible fix until something sticks. “Can she die? Am I a bad cat mom?,” Carpenter recalls worrying over their sick digital cat. Learning that no, as far as the Sims goes, your pets can’t really die or even run away (though they can get bored from owner negligence) did less to relieve those worries than simply carrying on in spite of them.
Last month a group of us got together to put on an unconference, a DIY gathering made up of short, semi-improvised workshops proposed the day of. The tangible excitement of being all crammed together, friends, loose ties and strangers, around the schedule board provoked a mix of spontaneity and natural anxieties for many of us. The workshops ranged from communal cooking to disarming active shooters to handling leftist infighting in a small city where many activists are one degree separated. My choice to do a workshop on anxiety in relation to political action was in retrospect a pretty safe bet. I want to use this post to recount the workshop, by summarizing a specific text that helped inform it, as well as the personal experience of doing the workshop itself. In a year where just keeping up with the deluge of bad news and formulating an appropriate response became its own preoccupation, many of us are in the process of forming new media consumption habits. Even if those new modes of action are just spreading information while expressing how fucked up everything is, a little guidance can be helpful.
“Instead of asking what you should do, begin in every situation by asking yourself what, realistically, you can do,” writes philosopher FT in “A Guide For the Perplexed,” which inspired the idea for my workshop. Of the activism related how-to guides released this year, it’s no accident it was the least anxiety-inducing one I read. Organized around a series of concentric circles that each represent a categorical relation – e.g. your relationship to yourself, then friends/family, institutions, moving outward from the direct to the increasingly abstract – the text invites you as the reader to reflect on your relation with each. For example, between you and your local neighborhood health clinic, all the way up to your relation to global warming. Although reorganizing ideas in the mind alone obviously can’t, as the text stresses, change our material circumstances, there’s good cause to believe that, “by organizing our ideas about our selves and about the world differently, we might […] also reduce the amount of anxiety we experience when we think about ourselves and about the world.”
Reading the guide again for the workshop, I found its repetitious, reflexive construction reminiscent of meditation. Dispensing with the body/mind schism is in fact invoked as one of the text’s stated aims, the guide sometimes directly urging you to take a breath. (Your mileage may vary, but I liked these occasional explicit suggestions.) Just jumping around the categories – the text affords reading in any order – I could redirect my focus from more abstract thinking toward more concrete actions and practical preparations that I could take. Like finally getting a passport, for instance, before my state among several others adopts the new RealID laws that will depreciate driver’s licenses as a valid form of ID on flights!
A conversation with a friend the other day brought up our experiences with dissociation. Sparing triggering details, the coping mechanism struck me as an especially apt one in light of the uniquely exhausting toll this year has had on many people in different ways both overt and subtle. The act of assuming a minimum-necessary attachment, if not a complete detachment, from the news at times provided a needed buffer to balance responsiveness to the latest incident with the potential for burnout. Though pursuing more practical measures, as mentioned above, generally reduces stress and at times is just necessary, there are inevitably times when that just isn’t going to happen.
The highly individual nature of performing that balancing act renders any description partial. In devoting part of the workshop to speaking to that from my own experience with social anxiety was a surprisingly effective means of processing it. The relative anonymity of sharing personal stories with a room of strangers helped me open up and speak candidly without fear of judgement. At the same time, the awareness that my audience had themselves probably dealt with anxiety forced me to be conscious about pacing and avoiding oversharing or triggering myself. Getting to commiserate with fellow anxiety sufferers and share our tips and technologies of wellness can serve as some of the best therapy, it turns out! Indeed anxiety in its various forms, as a widespread psychosocial experience often inflected by extra- and interpersonal struggles, seems a suitable basis as any for forging politics across disparate identities.
At moments when anxiety overwhelms me, a trick I’ve found to snap myself out of it is to empathize with myself as though I am consoling my self as another person. “An empathetic attitude works toward a “close-enough” understanding of the other as other, never to be reduced to a stereotype,” Jake Jackson suggests as an alternative attitude to the more common, often patronizing ones we take towards depression sufferers. “This limitation, this lack of certainty in our empathetic understandings of others, vindicates the need for the other’s testimony as a viable source for conﬁrmation.” In our haste to affirm another’s unique struggles, we can easily overrate our own ability to empathize with them, a shortcut that diminishes the self-knowledge learned from another’s experience while inflating a false sense of our own. In this vein a way to think of anxiety could be as a lapse in empathy towards one’s self. To learn better how to exercise true empathy towards other selves, then, might require first showing humility toward understanding our own self – our worries, needs, hopes and desires – as we would another person, a ‘close-enough understanding’ of us as a self we don’t entirely know.
Growing uncertainty about the future naturally evokes anxieties and a desire to relieve them. Faced with the tension of assessing an unknowable future, it’s tempting to turn a sense what might happen into what will inevitably occur or to view merely ambiguous change through dichotomous good/bad framings. And when the choice is between “good” or “bad,” it’s probably bad, isn’t it? “Hope isn’t optimism,” FT wrote recently. “Hope is the small, quiet conviction that you don’t know how things will turn out.” They contrast this with despair, “the conviction that you not only know how things will turn out, but that there’s no way to change the outcome.” If despair offers convenient permission to gratefully stop thinking about our collective future and the role we play in its fruition, hope demands a recognition of our complicity in the future, and what ultimate agency we have to affect it in the present. To apprehend our individual agency, however constricted it may be, is to willfully hold out hope, and so incurs anxiety borne of that recognition; a constructive anxiety, one that, short of resolving, we’re probably better off for embracing.